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In many ways, Miss International Queen is just like any other pageant: finalists parade in evening gowns, swimsuits and national dress, and the winner will perform twelve months of promotional and charity duties. There’s one major difference, though: all the contestants are transgender women, and the top prize includes cosmetic surgery for the winner – if she wants it.

As the world’s largest transgender pageant hits the stage in Thailand (where else!) for its 10th anniversary year, we take a look at this unique contest.

Miss International Queen began in 2004 with the aim of building international awareness of transgender rights. The event, now in its tenth year, kicked off with a press conference last week, and the final will be held on November 7 at Tiffany’s Show Theatre, Pattaya.

It’s not the only transgender pageant in the world, but it is the biggest and the most international: this year’s 25 finalists hail from 21 different countries.

▼ Contestant Piyada Inthavong, from Laos, posted this selfie backstage with Poy, one of Thailand’s most famous ladyboys.

Contestants in Miss International Queen can be pre- or post-operation transgender, but must have been born biologically male. Candidates are competing for a top prize that includes US$12,500, and any surgery they wish to have, be it gender reassignment, or other cosmetic surgery.

Having surgery as the grand prize sounds a bit like those guys who get their wife a boob job for Christmas, but there’s no pretence that this contest is about inner beauty. And in its acceptance of that fact, Miss International Queen actually somehow comes off looking more honest than other, more conventional women’s beauty pageants.

▼ 2013 winner Marcelo Ohio, from Brazil, with some of the contestants at this year’s press launch.

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The participation of transgender women in mainstream pageants, meanwhile, remains a source of controversy. The Miss Universe Organisation faced criticism in 2012 when they disqualified candidate Jenna Talackova from Miss Universe Canada after learning that she was transgender. While the organisation later reversed the decision and allowed Talackova to compete, the winner of Miss Universe 2013 Gabriela Isler said transgender people should have their own pageants because the Miss Universe pageant was “made for women”.

If the major objective of Miss International Queen is visibility of transgender women, the glitzy televised ceremonies seems to achieve that. That’s not to say that the contest is particularly politicised, though: in the Talent Quest event, the rules expressly forbid “any display of nudity, foul language, innuendo, political, and transgendered & gay statements.

So is Miss International Queen doing enough to increase awareness of transgender issues? It’s hard to say. But the glitzy ceremonies – and the contestants’ Instagram pages – are certainly gaining attention.

You can watch some of the extravagant press conference in a video from MissLadyBoys below.

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Sources: Coconuts TVNormannorman, InstagramYouTube, Miss International Queen (1, 2)
Images: Miss International Queen unless otherwise stated